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African Americans Overcome Breast Cancer by Fighting it Early

The case for detecting breast cancer early just got stronger. Researchers are now finding that combining a newer cancer drug called Herceptin with traditional chemotherapy is significantly better at keeping breast cancer under control than using the older treatment alone. Indeed, the chance of the disease relapsing was cut nearly in half for women who took the combination, according to results presented at the recent American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting, a premier gathering of cancer specialists.

Herceptin is part of a new trend in cancer treatment, which unlike therapies before it, targets the specific defects that cause cancer cells to grow. The catch: the drug only works against a type of error present in 20 to 30 percent of breast cancers, and tumors must be nabbed at their earliest, most treatable stage. Although African Americans tend to fare worse from the disease as a whole, Edith Perez, MD, of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida says that blacks are just as likely to benefit from this new treatment, as long as the disease is caught in time.

"We do not have any biological reason to think that race is an issue." says Perez, who led one of the studies on Herceptin.

The same color blindness may not hold true for tumors that are diagnosed in later stages. In a separate study that tested Herceptin in women who had advanced breast cancer, 53 percent of whites responded to the drug. In blacks, the response was only 38 percent.

Unfortunately, this is the more common scenario. African Americans are typically diagnosed with severe, late-stage tumors, which is thought be one reason why black women have lower survival rates than whites.

"Early detection is something we need to catch on to." says Karen Jackson, the director of Sister’s Network, an advocacy group. Until recently, a relatively high proportion of black women did not seek out mammographies, considered the best screening method to detect breast cancer. This is quickly changing, Jackson says, now that organizations like hers are reaching out to black women. "The information is flowing directly into the community." she says.

This push for early detection, backed by Jackson and many others, appears to be arriving just in time. The positive findings from Herceptin come on the heels of a major report that found women with early-stage breast cancer are living longer than patients did in the past. The study, published in The Lancet, showed that chemo and hormone therapies widely used today help prevent breast cancer from returning, even 15 years down the road.

Matching the latest high-tech treatments with the current crop of breast cancer drugs represents the next best hope for beating the disease. African Americans, however, face more than their fair share of challenges. Racial disparities and overburdened clinics can make it hard to get the appropriate care. There is also an unsettling chance that tumors are naturally more aggressive in blacks. On top of these concerns, research presented at the oncology meeting suggests that African Americans often have to wait longer for treatment. These new findings come from a review of nearly 50,000 Asian, white, Hispanic and black women who had breast cancer.

Looking at the amount of time it took a patient to start treatment after a tumor is first detected, the study showed that about a quarter of African American women went three or more months before receiving care, a delay that was significantly longer than any other racial group.

"These differences in time to care have the potential to influence survival." said Sherri Sheinfeld Gorin, MD, of New York Physicians Against Cancer.

Still, Jackson says there is much that African Americans can do to fight breast cancer. "We are not missing out on every advance." she says. Jackson encourages women to learn about breast cancer, know their risk and get screened.

"Once women are more aware, they are going to act." she says.

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